More than half of Australian office workers now spend their days in open-plan settings – and this is expected to grow as companies take down the walls to reduce their floorspace, costs and carbon footprint.
But open plan comes at a cost – and it seems ping pong tables and free food are far less important to employees than places where they can work without interruptions.
A study from Oxford Economics points to epidemic levels of noise pollution in open plan offices. Of the 1,200 senior executives and employees interviewed, just one per cent said they could block out distractions and concentrate without taking extra steps.
And while more than half of company decision-makers (54%) believe their employees have the right tools to mitigate noise and distraction in the office, only 29 percent of employees agree..
This noise distraction isn’t just annoying. Employees in the most raucous offices are also the most likely to say they are tempted to walk out for good in next six months.
But that doesn’t mean we should start constructing cubicles, bringing in the shag pile carpet or pipe in the muzak.
“It’s about giving teams the right tools to create an environment where collaboration and focus work can happen at the same time in the same space,” says Marcus Rose, founder of Valeo Technology.
Beyond the ABC of acoustics
Rose says many companies encounter challenges with noise in their workspaces.
“Lots of companies are constantly fielding complaints from staff about noise and distractions,” Rose explains.
“The noise is often intensified by the open plan aesthetics themselves: hard, reflective surfaces like polished concrete, walls of windows and exposed ceilings that amplify sound.”
Companies might try the ABC of acoustics – absorption, blocking and cover – but some have little limited success. “They found the absorption and blocking techniques certainly helped dampen the noise but the traditional sound conditioning systems I've experimented with weren’t well received by employees.”
“We know that not all noise is equal. In fact, the sound of speech dwarfs all other distractions in the office,” Rose says, pointing to a survey of 65,000 office workers by the University of California, Berkeley, which found that speech distraction was the top complaint.
“Human beings are hardwired to respond to speech. The secret is not to eliminate background noise – which, let’s face it, is impossible. The key is to minimise the intelligibility of speech.”
To do so, many designers turned to nature for inspiration.
Why water soothes the soul
“There’s a reason why the sounds of rolling ocean waves or rain on a roof are so calming. The human brain interprets the slow, whooshing noise of water as non-threatening while masking other sounds that would trigger the brain’s alert response,” Rose explains.
A raft of research confirms this. The Finnish Institute of Occupational Health found the sound of natural spring water was the optimal speech masker – above pink noise, instrumental music, vocal music or ventilation noise. Meanwhile, the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the United States discovered that water sounds – over and above even silence – elevate productivity, concentration and cognitive function.
Applying this research to its product, Moodsonic developed a soundscape themes that combine soothing water sounds and adaptive software.
Moodsonic has already been adopted by several large companies around the world.
“Open plan offices may be noisy – but they don’t have to be,” Rose adds.
“Using sight, sound and science can reduce distractions and bridge the gap between our intrinsic human needs and modern life’s demands.”